The story opens with an unnamed narrator, a young Haitian revolutionary, thinking of his girlfriend. He is on a small boat that has set sail for Miami, Florida. He is going into exile because he is wanted by the Haitian government. These details are disclosed by the young woman, who is the second narrator of the story. While her lover has left the country, she remains behind with her mother and father. The man and woman tell their stories through a series of letters. Though they cannot mail these letters, they are writing to appease their loneliness while they are away from one another. When they are reunited, they will feel as if they have not been apart.
In Haiti the young man, a university student, was a member of a youth federation that protested the dictator and called for a new government. He fled the country when the secret police, known as the Tonton Macoutes, cracked down on his group. The other members have been killed by the army, and even more students were shot while demonstrating for the return of their friends' bodies. One woman, Madam Roger, a neighbor of the young woman's family, returned with only, the head of her son.
The young man speaks of the difficulties of life aboard the ship: the vomiting, the temperature changes, the lack of privacy, the shortage of food. He dreams that he has died and gone to heaven, only heaven is at the bottom of the sea. The young woman is also in heaven, but her father continues to keep them apart. The young woman's father does not approve of their relationship, thinking that the young man was not good enough. Now that the young man is gone, the father is still afraid that his daughter's connection with the revolutionaries will endanger their lives. One night soldiers beat Madam Roger in order to coerce her into naming her son's associates. The young woman and her mother think the father should go to Madam Roger's aid. But the father knows he can do nothing for his neighbor, and that it is impossible even to protect his own family. The father only wants to move to Ville Rose, which he thinks will be "civilization" compared to Port-au-Prince, a crowded and impoverished city.
On board the ship a young teenager named Celianne gives birth to a dead baby. The passengers gossip about her, saying her parents kicked her out for having an affair, but the truth is much worse. One night the secret police came to her house and forced her brother, a revolutionary, to have sex with their mother. The soldiers then raped Celianne and arrested her brother. She cut her face with a razor so no one would know who she was, and then she escaped on die boat. Because the boat is leaking, the passengers are forced to throw their belongings overboard but Celianne will not throw her baby into the water
In Ville Rose, the young woman's family decides to be honest with each other. The young woman tells her father of her love for the young man. Her mother tells her that the Tonton Macoutes had intended to arrest her because of her involvement with a member of the youth federation. But when the father hears of the plan, he bribes them with all the money he has as well as the family's house and land. The young woman does not know how to thank her father. On the radio, she hears her lover passed his university exams.
On board the ship everything is tossed overboard. Celianne...
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throws her baby into the sea and then jumps in herself. The young man is forced to throw away his notebook. Before doing so, he writes the last page which contains his final thoughts. He knows he is about to join the "children of the sea," those who have escaped slavery to live in a world away from the earth and sky, and away from all the violence. He knows that even in death he will always remember his girlfriend.
Right after the young woman thanks her father for saving her life, a black butterfly tells her the news about the boat. She hears on the radio that the soldiers are killing more people in Port-au-Prince, and she realizes that she cannot stay safely in Ville Rose forever. She sits under the banyan tree, which her mother tells her is holy, surrounded by black butterflies. She knows that the boat that sank off the coast of the Bahamas was her lover's. From where she sits the sea is hidden by the mountains, but she knows it will always be there, endless, like her love for him.